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American Jews Grapple
With Modern Germany
Finds Inspired Path
spent a week exploring Germany with a group
of remarkable people from across the United
States. Germany Close Up: American Jews
Meet Modern Germany is a program in partner-
ship with the American Jewish Committee. Upon
landing in Berlin, we experienced a vibrant city,
full of history and full of life. Many of us, how-
ever, felt the eerie presence of ghosts of Jewish
Our first venture was a walking tour
of Jewish Berlin titled "Don't Trust
the Green Grass." We heard stories of
Jewish life, but many were punctuated
by what was: a synagogue, a school, a
cemetery without headstones, a family.
One patch of grass had a barely per-
ceptible line that was once the concrete
foundation of the Jewish Community
Center. Near that spot stood a monu-
ment for the Rosenstrasse protest in
1943, organized by the non-Jewish
wives of Jewish men who had been
arrested for deportation to Auschwitz. This protest
resulted in these men being returned home; and
men already sent to Auschwitz were brought back.
Why don't many people know about this? Perhaps
Jews were uncomfortable with the idea that inter-
marriage may have saved lives. Perhaps Germans
were uncomfortable with the idea that, in this case,
protest was effective and the idea of what more
protest could have accomplished. Standing on that
patch of grass, and throughout the rest of the trip,
we tried to find meaning in empty space.
The Holocaust altered the future of the Jewish
people forever in a way we will never fully grasp,
but the impact on my family's future was made
clear to me throughout my entire childhood.
When I was in high school, I lost two grandpar-
ents; but what shook me years later was when
I realized that the world also lost two survivors
— two witnesses. We are approaching a difficult
time where, for the first time, my peers are going
to be required to represent those witnesses on
behalf of our families.
In the wake of Holocaust denial and indiffer-
ence, which I believe are more pressing concerns,
my generation is uniquely positioned in a way
that our parents never were. By the time we were
brought into this world, our grandparents who
survived the Holocaust had already rebuilt them-
selves. They had healed — in whatever way one
can heal — and rebuilt their lives. Our parents
grew up in households with their parents' physi-
cal and emotional wounds still raw, and the world
was in disbelief at the horrors perpetrated by the
Nazis. Our parents did not need to be witnesses.
Survivors were close by and the truth was ever-
present. Today, however, many 3Gs (third gen-
eration of survivors) are haunted by the burden:
What now? I went to Germany in November to be
a witness, to continue learning how to be one.
What's At Issue
A trip to Germany like this one calls out a lot of
difficult questions for a young Jew. It challenges
who you are and how you live your life. It hum-
bles you. At times, it scares you. The Holocaust is
either at the top, or close to it, in terms of what
defines young peoples' Jewish identity. One of
my key takeaways from this trip is that as wit-
nesses we must remember and work
to ensure "never again;" but if, as
one participant put it, young people
feel that their Jewish identity is more
influenced by Hitler than Moses, we
have a serious problem.
What do we owe to the past that will
preserve or rebuild the world that was
lost in the Shoah? The Jewish world
we know does not represent even a
shadow of what was in the 1930s. Not
all of this is bad. Vibrant, proud cen-
ters of Jewish life have been built; a
thriving Jewish State of Israel has been
established. Still, what can we preserve, better
than we have, of the Jewish life that my great-
grandfather lived and I know little about?
It isn't hard to tell that Germany is still not
comfortable in its own skin. It is not at peace,
struggling to find out how to exorcize the
demons of committing an immeasurable sin.
Germany is grappling with what happened, how
it happened and what it can do to make things
right. Nothing can undo the past, especially
when the past seems abstract to many, and these
sins were committed years before most Germans
My burden of remembrance, of being a wit-
ness, is heavy, but cannot be as heavy as what
many Germans feel. That Germany grapples
should not be overlooked or underappreciated.
To be sure, the main perpetrators were Germans;
but something we discussed among ourselves
was that we're not sure how much today's Poles
or Hungarians grapple, or those during the war
who moved in to their recently departed neigh-
bors' houses and ate at their dining room tables
lit by candles held in their candlesticks.
Germans and Jews arrived to 2013, this point
in history, on very different paths, but we're
in the same boat now. By the path of history,
there are two peoples who have no choice or
perhaps as a mitzvah have accepted that they
have no choice but to grapple with history: the
German people and the Jewish people. There is a
partnership bound by history. Reparations, rec-
onciliation and diplomatic cooperation among
Germany, Israel and global Jewry will chart the
path of what the relationship can look like going
into the future.
Daniel Kuhn is East Coast field director for the Israel
on Campus Coalition. The Detroit native is a graduate
of Michigan State University. He lives in Washington,
he keynote speaker at the centennial conference
of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
(USCJ) didn't give a lot of specifics, but he did infuse
some artful ideas into the conversation about how to rally
Conservative Judaism, the once-dominant movement that's
now confronting a decidedly declining affiliation.
"We Conservative/Masorti Jews have
forgotten to lift up our eyes," said Rabbi
Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler
School of Rabbinic Studies at the American
Jewish University in Los Angeles and one of
the movement's brightest stars.
His inclusion of "Masorti," the name of
the movement in Israel, was strategic as
it inextricably ties Conservative Jews with
their Israeli brethren. Masorti doesn't stand
a chance of enduring if its American partner
collapses under the weight of rigidity and smugness.
We have of late become a little too defensive, as if we
could refute our challenges through debating points," Artson
said. "We have become a bit too brittle, eager to shift the
blame to each other or to some third party beyond our con-
trol. We have become too petty and too small, focusing on
issues of denominations, borders and turf as though those
were our core missions as Jews.
It is time to once again lift up our eyes above our limita-
tions, above the statistics, above the unnecessary divisions."
He certainly minced no words in laying out the hurdles
before a movement that, according to the latest Pew survey,
has shrunk as a segment of American Jewry from 43 percent
in 1990 to 33 percent in 2000 to 18 percent today. Even the
number of synagogues affiliating with the USCJ has fallen
amid disputes ranging from dues, territorialism and rituals, to
youth engagement, enthusiasm and inclusion.
Artson insightfully described how Conservative Judaism
isn't alone among wisdom traditions in understanding that
neither a few institutional adjustments nor a slick slogan are
the ultimate answers to regaining membership.
"No," he said in his Oct.13 address, "our challenge is to
step beyond habit, to reach beyond fear, to return to a core
vision that is worthy of our passion and our talents and our
He peppered his remarks with important positive catch-
words: justice, Torah, healing, comfort, service, diversity,
engagement, pluralism, passion. And he courageously assert-
ed, "Enough with the handwringing; enough with despair."
"Let us walk again on a path that is the Halachah [Jewish
law], our people's way of walking, not as a frozen mandate of
unchanging truth, but as the supple, living branches of a mag-
nificent, flourishing Etz Hayim, a Living Tree," he declared.
JN coverage of the USCJ conference ("Time For Action,"
Oct. 31, page 28) quoted local rabbis who gave examples of
how their congregations are attracting new and renewed
interest in Judaism's centrist stream.
For Conservative Judaism to right its spiritual ship, it
indeed must engage the marginalized, the forsaken and the
turned off in a fully charged effort to, as Artson put it, "add
to the glory of our tradition, leaving it strong and more vital
for our children."
It's the children, of course, who must embrace a new-age
Conservative Judaism with excitement and commitment if
the barriers are to be cleared from a path of learning so des-
perate and eager to add participants and supporters.
January 16 • 2014